Author, chef, and television personality Amy Riolo has written the following guest post about the history and benefits Mediterranean cuisine for her upcoming book talk on May 13 – “The Mediterranean Diet: Delicious Food Prescriptions for Transforming Illness.”
Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food (Hippocrates)
Almost daily we are learning how important diet and nutrition are in health. Fortunately, a poor diet is easily corrected. Following a delicious and healthful lifestyle called ‘The Mediterranean diet’ can reduce the risk and prevent many illnesses as well as reverse many disease states. The diet is known as the healthiest in the world because it is not truly a diet, but rather a lifestyle that prescribes a lot of what we should eat and a little of what we shouldn’t, along with accompanying physical and social activities.
The Mediterranean diet is a modern eating plan based upon the traditional diet and lifestyle of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It was defined by Oldways (a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization that created the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid), the Harvard School of Public Health, and the European Division of the World Health Organization in 1993. In the last 22 years, Oldways has modified the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to include “Be physically active and enjoy meals with others” – two very important, yet non-culinary elements into the lifestyle.
Culinary medicine- the combination of the art of cooking and eating with science, nutrition, and medicine- is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Yet as the above quote suggests, foods have been used to heal the body for millennia. Believe it or not, approximately 70% of modern day medical cures were mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts. Today many researchers will study ancient beliefs regarding food and nutrition, such as cinnamon regulates blood sugar levels, and proves them to be true using modern standards. Many of these natural remedies are present in the recipes of the Mediterranean region. Many other culinary traditions of the Mediterranean grew out of cultural traditions. Grains, legumes, and various types of produce were once an important currency that entire empires, including ancient Egypt, were built upon. The inexpensive staples that fill our cupboards now were once coveted commodities. As a result, many delicious ways of preparing them were developed and eating healthfully became a pleasure.
There were also historical aspects which forced people to eat healthfully. Throughout Mediterranean history, for example, finely milled flours became associated with the upper classes and coarser grains with poorer communities. Average people couldn’t afford the finely milled flour that is used in making today’s pasta. As a result, many types of whole grains and grasses were combined to make traditional pastas. But, as we now know, excessive milling strips grains of their nutritional benefits. Therefore, choosing organic or heirloom whole grains whenever possible are a great way to adhere to the Mediterranean diet, reap its health benefits, and eat what is culturally appropriate. There is no need to eschew wheat or grain completely because of recent headlines or diet fads. And did you know that fava beans are actually the world’s oldest agricultural crop, and wild chickpeas were first cultivated 11,000 years ago? Lucky for us, many heirloom beans and lentils, packed with nutrients and protein, are readily available and inexpensive today.
Olives and olive oil are the common denominator between all cuisines in the Mediterranean region. In the eastern Mediterranean areas that comprise modern day Israel, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, archeologists have found olive pits dating back 8,000 years and evidence of olive oil production from 6,000 years ago. By the fourth millennium BCE, the ancient Egyptians were using olive oil not only for culinary purposes, but also for cosmetics and perfumes. Often called green gold, or liquid gold, olive oil has a symbolic meaning in the three monotheistic faiths–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hippocrates also prescribed olive oil for curing gastric ulcers, muscular pain, and cholera.
Amy Riolo, an expert on Mediterranean cuisine and culture, will be at the Library on Wednesday, May 13th 11:30 am-12:30 pm in the West Dining Room, 6th floor, James Madison Building to discuss her latest book The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook (Fair Winds Press, 2015). Copies her cookbook will be available for purchase and signing following the program.
If you cannot make it to the book talk, it will be captured and later broadcast on the Library’s science/technology webcast page and YouTube channel “Topics in Science” playlist in the coming months.
[July 2015 Update: You can view a recording of this lecture via the Library’s webcast page or YouTube channel]